Nominating a Primary Candidate to Beat the GOP

by Rachel Murphy Azzara and Sudha Mohan

To win, you need to play chess, not checkers. Most would accept this as a political truth.

“Winning”, in our political game, is having the ability to affect policy. To change things. This isn’t an abstract concept: the legislative process is clearly defined. And the legislative power to pursue an agenda of progress will only come when Democrats win GOP-held seats.

In 2018, flipping seats is even more important than normal, because we are not in normal times. It has become clear that only a Congress with a Democratic majority can provide the investigatory and legislative checks and balances necessary to rein in the corrupt and out-of-control Trump Administration. The Republicans have forfeit their oversight role.

Is winning everything? It is in civics. You can’t push through bills without votes and you can’t stop bills without votes. Their votes matter, so our votes matter. Perhaps especially in the primaries.

This year of all years, the goal of the primary process has to be nominating candidates who have the best chance of beating the GOP.  If winning is the goal, endorsements should be strategic, not personal, and voting should be pragmatic.

This piece from The Hill, on Donald Trump’s meeting with Congress on gun control, illustrates the point that there is a need for strategy and pragmatism to actualize civic change.

‘Do you think he has any idea what’s in Manchin-Toomey?’ the lawmaker asked. ‘As he gets more information he may not hold to that. What makes you think Manchin-Toomey will get more votes than it did before?’

Democratic leaders pushed the bill, which would close what they call the ‘gun show’ loophole, in 2013 but it garnered only 54 votes — six votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.

Six Democrats who voted for that bill five years ago have since been replaced by Republicans who would be more skeptical of the legislation

This is always an important issue, but for the 2018 Election it is absolutely crucial. We must have Congressional votes to enact the changes we want and to stop the GOP agenda. One year into this administration and Congress, the stakes are clear: the damage that can be done could take generations to repair. If the GOP takes control of more states it can get worse.

So, how do we win seats? How did this GOP trifecta happen? There are a lot of reasons – each worthy of it’s own exploration — gerrymandering, voter suppression, backlash against diversity/progress, carefully cultivated anti-intellectualism, propaganda…but, the nuts and bolts issues come down to differences in the parties themselves and the infrastructure that supports them.

The key difference between the parties used to pivot on economics and the scope of government. Republicans were fiscally conservative in terms of US spending and believed the federal government should have limited reach. Over the past 20+ years this has changed and morphed into an ideology with a much greater reach and hold over constituents. Some irreverently refer to the GOP ‘agenda’ as God, Gays, and Guns. They’re not wrong. The GOP is well aware that they can pull in single-issue voters – and they do. The Democratic party is more complex. We are not an ideological party. We are a ‘big tent’ party.

What ties us together as a party is social responsibility and respect for our differences. What this looks like, how this takes shape, can vary a lot. Progress, in this sense, is subjective. It depends on where you are.

A pragmatic approach means voting with your mind, not your heart. Instead of asking if the candidate shares your personal views, ask if the candidate can win the district.

Let’s break that down. I live in a red state. I’m anti-gun, pro-universal healthcare. Candidate A shares my belief: she is for banning assault rifles and boosting Medicare For All. I personally really like her. Candidate B wants better background checks on guns and wants to fix ACA. The fact is, Candidate B will do better in a red state because of the need to win over Independents and moderate Republicans, who have been conditioned to be skeptical of the “socialism” boogeyman.

Consider the outcomes of your choice. If you vote for Candidate A and she loses, then the GOP wins the seat. Your voice goes in favor of the GOP: pro-Gun/anti-healthcare. Even if she wins, great, she’ll vote along party lines, but won’t likely have enough Congressional support to pass bills deemed ‘too progressive’.

Is it worth risking the seat because someone shares your personal views? What’s the likelihood of them winning in your district and what realistic chance do they have of passing legislation on the issues they are campaigning for? These questions matter.

One could look at this as one big game board, or hundreds of game boards in a tournament that ultimately results in our voting Congress. Each district is it’s own battleground with unique vectors. For this reason, assessment must be district-specific.

When groups give endorsements for candidates, be clear on their criteria. How important is winning the seat? Are they endorsing based on ideology or winnability? What is the win-rate of the endorsing group? Be wary of groups that are self-dealing or farming clients.

Our vetting process at Democrats Work For America is based on flipping the most seats in the general election. We act very carefully, targeting critical races and featuring candidates either because: 1) they can win; 2) energy from the featured race will drive victory in another critical seat (if people turn out for a specific election, they will likely vote blue up and down ballot), or; 3) efforts will build grassroots energy and infrastructure for the next cycle.

Our analysis in each district is strategic and multilayered and our input is from the ‘bottom up’. Our input comes from local people on the ground, not the state or national party. Ideally, we will arrive at the same conclusions, but that isn’t a given.

Look to the reactions of the opposition following Conor Lamb’s win in PA-18 for strategic clues. Particularly, I want to draw your attention to this statement from Paul Ryan. Basically, he’s pointing out that because Lamb didn’t have a primary opponent, he was able to run as a more conservative Democrat which allowed him to win a district Trump won by 20 pts.

“You will have primaries in these other races and the primaries bring them to the left,” Ryan said. “I just don’t think this is something you’ll see a repeat of.”

Let’s unpack that a little: They know that the GOP (and their support of Trump) is frowned on enough that there is willingness to vote for Democrats in red districts when they have palatable messaging (moderate, willingness to work in a bipartisan manner).

They are counting on the fact that even with their poor approval and Trump’s toxicity, constituents will still vote for them over a farther-left candidate. They see division on the left, and they’re relying on primaries to drive candidates to the left.

Why do they feel confident in this? I’m sure you’ve heard the talking point over the past 18 months that Democrats can only win by running more progressive candidates to spawn enthusiasm. That voters will come out and vote if we do this. That this is the path to victory. Don’t they see that?

Clearly they don’t. Because the numbers don’t tell that story. They know what’s worked in the past. They’ve mastered the fear of ‘progress’ and diversity. They’ve demonized ‘overreach of the government’. They all too happily allowed Trump’s campaign of blame, fear and hate.

They’re willing to ride the wave of backlash against progress. After all, they’ve been doing so for a long time and as the world has gotten smaller, strife and hardship has grown, and their method has gained power. Throw in propaganda and anti-intellectualism – even better.

They know some other things, too. They know GOP dwarf us in vote-turnout. They usually completely outfund and outspend us. And they know our weakness is self-righteousness. The intellectual and moral high-ground that so many have no use for.

So, are they right? Is #PA18 an outlier because Lamb was a ‘unicorn’? Is the electorate truly just that conservative? Or is there this great untapped source of voters yearning for a more progressive candidate? There is an answer here, it’s just not simple. There is no quick fix. The tenor of the electorate can be changed, but it takes more than a single election cycle. Progressive candidates brought into local seats become national legislators down the road. Lasting change takes time, work, and, yes, setbacks. But, it’s doable.

Democrats are never going to be a one-size fits all party. It’s not who we are. We are a coalition party and will have differing views as a matter of course. But, our legislative process hinges on a majority AND bipartisanship. Without it, no policy sees the light of day.

The red-state Democrats that people call DINOS are Democrats who vote with the party 80% of the time. They are elected as a harbinger that their constituents are willing to take a risk – to loosen the reigns. This isn’t something to take lightly or put in jeopardy.

There are indeed places where a more progressive candidate will fare very well. And then there are places like #PA18. If Ryan is right, we would‘ve trapped ourselves into defeat in the primary process had Conor Lamb been forced to the left by a progressive challenger. Don’t disregard the strategy of the opposition when it’s given. Take heed.

Winning a general is very different from winning a primary. Be aware that opposition on a candidate will be harshly weaponized in the general. Be aware of voting history, demographics (ethnicity breakdown, education levels, etc.) of your district. What type of candidate can win?

If you’re in a red district, remember this: a lot of Trump voters may be getting squeamish about the GOP, but if the primary produces a candidate that is too far out of their comfort zone, they will vote for the GOP incumbent, and incumbents already have a significant advantage.

The model we’re using is working. Our candidates are winning. And winning seats is how we fight back against GOP legislation and get back to helping people. It’s not personal. It’s not ‘establishment’ or moderate vs. progressive. It’s the Right vs. the Left. It’s going backward or reaching forward.



2 thoughts on “Nominating a Primary Candidate to Beat the GOP

  1. Your clearest and most effective rationale yet, Rachel. This kind of clear thinking and determination will make the “blue wave” a reality this November, and then again in 2020. We need electable candidates and energized voters and I believe these two elements go hand in hand when people consider and understand what’s at stake. I am on board.

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